Coronavirus: PM’s tension with government advisers laid bare as he pins hopes on Christmas | UK News

Boris Johnson is a prime minister who likes to trade in optimism and hope – and there was plenty of that on display on Friday as he dangled the prospect of our lives going back to normal – or thereabouts – in time for Christmas. 

But as he set out his next phase on Britain’s road to recovery, it was inevitable that this would be an address filled not just with light, but with shade, too.

Between now and Christmas comes the beginning of winter and the prospects of resurgence of the coronavirus.

Hoping for the best (but planning for the worst), the prime minister announced £3bn of extra funding for the NHS to help it prepare for a possible second wave.

Boris Johnson stressed that he must 'weigh the advice' he is given
Boris Johnson stressed that he must ‘weigh the advice’ he is given

He also laid out a commitment to ramp up testing to 500,000 a day by the end of October to boost the test and trace programme.

New powers for councils to impose local lockdowns were announced as well – an acknowledgement that the battle with this virus is far from over.

But even as the prime minister said all this, he pressed on with a further easing of restrictions in a bid to kickstart the economy.

Mr Johnson changed the guidance on working from home to encourage employers to send workers back into offices.

There were also plans to open bowling alleys, casinos, and skating rinks from August, and sports stadiums and conference centres from October.

Social distancing could perhaps be scrapped from November.

Warning of a possible second wave while simultaneously releasing some measures, this encapsulated the difficult balancing act he faces in trying to manage a public health crisis while rescuing the economy.

Mr Johnson acknowledged that some would think his plan was “too optimistic” and the “risks too great” as he sought to reassure the public he’d put on the brakes if necessary.

It was perhaps no coincidence that Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser (CSA), and Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer (CMO), did not flank the prime minister for this particular set of announcements.

Could they have really endorsed a road map out of lockdown that goes against some of the public recommendations they, themselves, have made around working from home (Sir Patrick) and social distancing rules (Professor Whitty).

I understand at the cabinet meeting convened on Friday morning to sign off the announcement, Professor Whitty stressed the high level of risk that came with this plan, and that ministers needed to go into it with eyes wide open.

But he also accepted this was a decision for ministers to make.

This was a message echoed by the prime minister on Friday.

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When I asked the PM whether his advisers had made themselves scarce from the news conference because they believed his plan ‘too optimistic’ and the ‘risks too high’, Mr Johnson said “no”.

But he also signalled the growing divergence between the scientific advice and policy decisions.

“I must stress that the CSA and CMO give us advice which we of course take very, very seriously, but in the end decisions are taken by the elected politicians.

“We have to weigh the advice we get and I don’t think our wonderful scientific and medical advisers would want to take those decisions for us; those are decisions for us to take.”

This is the tension laid bare. His scientific advisers are squarely focused on trying to control the virus and prevent a second spike.

The prime minister wants to avoid that too, but he also has to balance that risk with the other very pressing problem – the prospect of a deep and prolonged recession.

If he can give consumers confidence that the situation is improving and they should get back into shops, bars and the office, he might be able to give the economy a desperately needed short-term boost.

At the peak of the crisis, the prime minister liked to say his government was “led by the science”.

In more recent weeks, he’s said he was “guided by it”.

Now, he is considering it in the round as the acute public health crisis gives way to an economic one.

When it comes to this new chapter in the PM’s recovery plan, ministers and scientific advisers are clearly not on the same page.

But Mr Johnson is determined to make hay while the sun is shining and boost the economy now before the long winter comes.

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